Congregants at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis received an early Christmas present this year -- one they've been praying for nearly four decades.

The revered namesake of their Catholic church, a young American Indian woman who lived some 350 years ago, was among seven new saints approved by Pope Benedict this week. She's to become the first native North American saint, according to the church.

"There's just a lot of joy," said the Rev. Mike Tegeder, pastor at the church, which is the only Catholic parish in the Twin Cities with a predominantly Indian congregation. "The Indian community has been praying for this locally since the 1970s. She is seen as a model for Catholic Indians."

Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656. Her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother a Catholic Algonquin educated by French missionaries. At age 4 she lost her family in a smallpox epidemic, which also left her disfigured and with poor eyesight.

Adopted by a relative, she continued to nurture an interest in Christianity and was baptized at the age of 20. The members of her tribe, however, did not understand her new religion and she was marginalized, eventually fleeing to a mission in Canada.

She died in 1680 at the age of 24. And according to tradition, Kateri's smallpox scars instantly vanished from her face. It wasn't long before people began to credit her with miracles.

The pope on Monday signed decrees acknowledging miracles attributed to the intervention of Kateri and six others, who will be canonized as saints.

Tegeder said the church's Christmas Eve service on Saturday will be even more special than usual as the congregation celebrates the birth of Jesus -- and Kateri's sainthood.

"We will definitely acknowledge it and give thanks for it," Tegeder said. "Our prayers are answered."

Rose French - 612-673-4352